5 ~ Simple Growing

‘When we are at home in the garden, tending and nurturing all its plants, animals and minerals, living with them through all the seasons and days, then healing comes upon us like a gift and makes us whole.’

~ Christopher Bamford.

Homer Winslow

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau published his book Walden, or a Live in the Woods. Thoreau, a Unitarian and transcendentalist, spent two years two months and two days living alone in the woods near Concord in Massachusetts in a self-made wooden house, foraging for and growing his own food. The book has been influential, both as a pioneer work of self-sufficiency, but also as a work of literature. Critics of Thoreau will always point out that his experience was not quite as ‘back-to-earth’ as might be believed, Concord was no too far away from ‘civilization’ and he did ‘send home the washing’ to his mother each week, and he had a steady stream of literary and philosophical visitors, but criticisms aside it is a wonderfully documented experiment. Thoreau did simplify his life and did use the experience to shape a philosophy of self-sufficiency which helps those of us attempting the same thing today.

Few of us have the means to do as Thoreau did and go out into the woods and ‘do our own thing’, but any of us with some land can have a pretty good attempt at a degree of self-sufficiency. Growing food is not just a process of producing food to avoid having to buy it, growing your own food is a way of connecting yourself with the land and with the seasons, it is as much a spiritual thing as a practical exercise and the fulfillment of harvest is a rich one even if your crop is small. Even those without land can share in this bounty (see Chapter 7 Simple Gathering)
"I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green"
~ Henry David Thoreau

How to Grow Food

Growing food changed humans from nomadic hunter gatherers into agriculturalists, so you could argue that it was the very beginning of what we call civilization. As you start on the process of growing your own food you may think that the deciding factor in success is how much land you have, this is very far from the truth. Geography, climate, weather, sunlight, soil, water and luck all exert a powerful influence on what you can grow on your land, and how effectively you grow your food. My own house stands on one acre of land which is about 130metres above sea level on the border between Wales and England, on moving here from the Thames Valley my first growing year was an education in what I could no longer grow and it took me a couple of years to realize that, early first frost, and late last frost, combined with a wet and windy climate and a vast rabbit population, would dictate many of my crop choices. It will be the same for you, wherever you grow your food you must take into account the constraints offered by nature; gardening books and television gardening advice can give you the rough direction, but you need to travel the roads and byways of your land yourself. Whatever land you are blessed with, it will give you food and that food will be good, give it time.

Of course it could be that your land is greater than a garden, you may have a smallholding or even a farm. Again success is not won easily and having the land is only the first hurdle in feeding yourself and your family.

What to Grow

The answer to this is simple, it just may take some time to uncover the answer. Firstly, look at your area and see what others are growing successfully. If your neighbour can grow asparagus well then it should be a crop that you can consider, if you can walk for miles before coming across a decent soft fruit crop, then perhaps it is just not the area. This should not stop you trying to grow what you want, but it should be considered.

Your local climate may be difficult, or as is the case for most of the UK very unpredictable. As I write this it is in late January (one of the few times of the year I get time to write), the temperature outside is 8̊ C and the sun is occasionally showing her face, this time two years ago we had three days in a row when the temperature in the garden never got above -10̊ C. This level of unpredictability is not limited to winter, nor to temperature, August can be dry and difficult or very wet and difficult, you just can’t tell before it happens! This is one good reason for growing a wide range of crops, whatever the weather some things will succeed, and other things fail, monoculture is never the right path to self-sufficiency.

If you have limited land you may want to consider not growing crops because they are available to you at low cost elsewhere. I live in a potato growing area; I would be foolish to give over great areas of my vegetable plot to grow potatoes if the farmer down the road will sell them to me at minimal cost. Likewise, if you have the taste for an expensive crop, like asparagus or globe artichokes, then growing them in your plot might save you more money over the years than growing crops that can usually be obtained cheaply like carrots or swede.

Keep careful notes, nothing is more fun than using an ‘appointment diary’ to keep a record of what you sow, you can also smile to yourself that you have no appointments to keep! In this way you can keep a record of your successes and failures over the years and eventually have a good selection of reliable varieties that do well for you, this will help prevent you from being seduced by the descriptions offered in seed catalogues that are, at best highly ‘imaginative’. Whatever you grow determine to try two of three new things each year, in this way you're growing will never lack interest nor will you miss out on exciting new crops.
“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only ten percent of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
― Bill Mollison

Obviously the first thing that you will want to consider is growing vegetables, these are not the only crops that you will want to grow so don’t use all of your land up for them without some careful thought first. Summer vegetables are fine, but don’t fall into the trap of growing more than you can eat, preserve, or freeze. Give over a good proportion of your growing area to those crops that produce a harvest at other times of the year particularly winter and early spring. Unless you live in a very cold area you should be able to find varieties of sprouts, kale, cabbage, and leek that will ensure your plot is productive throughout the year. Digging and the correct use of manure and lime are important for your crops, so plan your year as well as your space carefully. Seed catalogues will frequently tell you that a new variety is better than all its predecessors, however, this is rarely true and, as far as I know only time will tell.


(C) K and R Lovegrove

Apples, pears, plums, damsons, cherries, hazelnuts and walnuts are all worth growing if you have the space. In addition to the food they may provide you with sticks for growing peas and beans and perhaps some firewood. Trees can also provide you with useful windbreaks which have a very important role in your growing area. While all of these trees take a few years to become productive the investment is worth it, an apple tree can repay you its original cost in its first two years of apple production. If you do not have fruit trees growing near you then you will have to plant more than one of each species to provide a pollination partner. If you live in an area where spring can come late, then choose late flowering varieties where possible.

Soft Fruit
One of the best things to grow in any garden is soft fruit like raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, red-currants, gooseberries, blueberries, wine berries, etc. Not only are they much less time consuming than vegetables, but they can be easily reserved, in a number of ways so overproduction is rarely a problem. Again the cost of the plants is soon covered by fruit production and careful planning will provide you with years of cropping. The different species of plant listed above all, have some special growing requirements so do your research well before planting. In almost every garden you will need to protect your crop from birds, I like to keep mine under netting and then, when I have harvested all I need I remove the net and let the wild birds move in for a feast!


You can grow herbs in any sized garden and it proves to be very profitable indeed, not only do you have fresh herbs to cook with when you want them, but you can also grow some to treat minor ailments (see Chapter 6 Simple Health). With a few notable exceptions (like bay for instance) dried herbs are very disappointing, so preserve them by freezing or making herb pesto’s which can be then be used in cooking throughout the year. Some herbs are perennial and need a sheltered spot in the garden, but others can be grown annually very easily. When I first moved to my current house I carefully planned an herb garden, but now I have planted herbs all over the place, in vegetable plots, containers and flower beds, you can find clumps of chives, sage and various mints in all kinds of corners. Plant some of your favourite herbs close to the house in pots so that you can pop out and harvest them while cooking (and find them in the dark). Pots can be moved into a polytunnel or conservatory in the winter to prolong the growing season and protect them from frosts. You should certainly consider chives, mint, sage, thyme, oregano/marjoram, parsley, rosemary, winter savoury and, if you have the space, bay.
Decorative Plants

However large or small your growing area is, please don’t forget to grow flowers, shrubs and trees which are beautiful, but not necessarily edible. Flowers will do much to encourage valuable pollinators to your garden so please choose those that have open structures which allow for nectar and pollen to be taken. Flowers can make your garden more beautiful and can also provide you with cut flowers for the house and dried flowers for the winter months. Some flowers are very useful to grow in your vegetable plot because they either smell so strongly they put pests off the scent of your crops, or they act as a breeding ground for friendly predators, or they act as a decoy for predators. Pot marigolds and nasturtiums are very useful and, self-sown, germinating nasturtium seeds is a very good indicator that the soil is warm enough to sow many vegetables.

Shrubs, bushes and trees all have a use in providing hedging, windbreaks, hiding the unsightly and protecting your privacy. Most importantly a garden which finds room for beauty, as well as food production, will be a wonderful environment for you and your family to work and relax in.

Protected Growing

For most of us the biggest problem we have in growing food is the shortness of the growing season. This can be extended by a number of means, for instance starting seedling off on a windowsill indoors will have your plants off to a rapid start when the weather is warm enough for them to go outside. If you are lucky enough to have a conservatory, or greenhouse attached to your home, you can take full advantage of lighter and warmer conditions than outdoors environment for much of the year.

Polythene is a cheap and very useful material for making protected areas outside, either on its own over metal hoops, or shaped into a polytunnel. Polytunnels are not as effective as conventional greenhouses, but are very useful for protecting crops. The night time temperature in my tunnel is never less than four degrees above the outside temperature, so in spring and autumn you can extend the growing season by up to four weeks, and in summer you can raise crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers which may not grow well outside in your area.

(C) K and R Lovegrove

Take care to choose your tunnel and its position carefully and be aware that in some areas they require planning permission, so please check with your local authority before you get building.
Every few years you will need to change the polythene on your tunnel so be sure to recycle the old cover and fit in with your obligation to recycle wherever possible.

Organic or Not?

Obviously a simple grower will want to use the soil in a way that does not contaminate it for future generations, and will want to protect animals that have as much right to the land as you do. On the other hand, if you do nothing all your crops will be lost and your work in vain. The answer is to select a form of growing that has minimum impact on the environment. For most of us organic gardening is the way, but before we fully accept the concept we might like to consider a few points. Firstly ‘the organic movement’ has had a tendency to go back in time to the agricultural methods of a time before World War II. If you read books on growing written before that time you will find it quite common to kill weeds with concentrated sulphuric acid and to spray fruit with terrible substances like arsenate of lead, because something used to be done doesn’t mean the environmental impact was not significant, it was just unmeasured. I have also seen organic gardeners widely accept volcanic ash as a fertilizer because it is ‘natural’ whereas in fact, it contains dangerous levels of selenium compounds, very toxic substances. Err on the side of caution before using a product just because it is labelled as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ both words are widely used in advertising and seldom have much meaning. The ‘real way’ of organic gardening is to use any way you can come up with without resorting to harmful chemicals.

In my garden I apply the following rules to help conserve the environment and get a reasonable crop;

  • If crops seem to be doing fine then don’t use any pesticide on them at all!
  • If you have leaves attacked by insect pests like then try spraying with water to remove them, or a solution of soft-soap applied regularly. If you are driven to use something more powerful use a spray that is biodegradable and non-toxic to humans like pyrethrums of a suspension of rape oil in water.
  • Net, cover and protect your crops as effectively as you can.
  • Make a scarecrow, but be careful they can give you a terrible shock if you look up from your work to see them standing above you!
  • If slugs are a problem, then try trapping them in beer traps, or collecting them at night. You may have some success with biological controls like nematodes, but these can prove very expensive with a large area to treat. If you have to use other manufactured remedies ensure that you use well tested, biologically friendly, products and use them very sparingly. A pet duck, if you can tolerate the mess, will eat itself silly on slugs and happily spend the day finding them.
  • Encourage wildlife to your garden that feed on pests; hedgehogs, frogs and toads get looked after very well in my garden, it’s the least I can do!
  • Ginger cats are excellent at getting your garden free of rabbits, rats and mice; in my experience they are better than any other shade of cat at doing this.
  • Homemade compost is the best way to feed your plants (see later in this chapter). Growing plants can benefit from regular spaying with a seaweed solution. Proprietary fertilizers are, in my opinion, very useful on occasions and I do use them to boost growth on plants that will not succeed otherwise.
  • Weeds are kept under control by hand weeding and hoeing. Clearing grassland to convert into food growing areas is very difficult without the one-off use of a biodegradable weed killer, but success can be had if you cover the area with black polythene for about six months prior to digging. Perhaps the best approach to weeds is to find those that are good to eat, and those that chickens like to eat and tolerate them to some extent. Other weeds of the perennial kind need to be dug out. It is wrong to expect a weed free garden, but it is bad gardening to let the weeds take over.
  • The golden rule is that whatever substances you use on your garden, don’t use them more often than necessary, and store them safely. If you can avoid using them altogether, then that is the simple way.

(C) K and R Lovegrove

The Large Plot
If your plot is large the best way to manage it is by conventional growing using crop rotation. For instance divide you plot into four and use them as 1 Potatoes, 2  Brassica (cabbage family), 3 green leafy vegetable and beans, 4 roots. Every year you chance the order of plots that no crop grows in the same place for four years. You will need to also find space for fruit trees, soft fruit, and herbs, but these generally don’t get included in the rotation. You might also like to consider a polytunnel. Large plots do require a lot of work, especially if your locality has unpredictable weather and you find yourself with late frosts and summer droughts. Larger plots do not allow the kind of micro-management that smaller plots allow so you have to space crops very generously to allow for hoeing, smaller plots allow for more hand weeding. If a large space is available to you, but your time or energy is limited, consider fencing a smaller area off for food production and leaving some of your land for meadow use.

The Medium Sized Plot

For any medium sized plot of land the best and simplest way to use it is a traditional kitchen garden. Vegetable plots are positioned with some suitable paving, or gravel, paths to separate them. Crop rotation should be used and flowers and fruit bushes incorporated into the general design. Intensive cultivation is much more manageable than on a larger plot so plants can be spaced a little closer and crops can be raised by sequential cropping; as soon as one crop is harvested the next crop goes in (autumn/winter crops like leeks are quickly followed by summer cabbages, or sprouts followed by potatoes). If your soil is poor, or you are unable to dig easily, then you should consider the use of raised beds, these are expensive to set up, but are very effective ways of maximizing your food production.

The Small Plot

To my mind any realistic ideas of crop rotation are inappropriate for a small area, though you should still avoid growing things in exactly the same place as last year. A better way is to start a potager style garden. Here vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers are grown together in a way that both produces good crops and looks beautiful. This does mean that your garden does not need to have separate flower beds, the flowers are simply mixed in with the vegetables. Even large gardens can gainfully introduce a potager style for the area close to the hose with large scale vegetable production in the main plots.

A potager needs to be looked after well and the gardener needs a lot of time on hands and knees, but such a beautiful result is possible in the first year. You can make your potager very ornate and geometric if you want, but keep in mind that it’s a simple life you want!

A Wok Garden

If the space for you to grow vegetables is very small consider starting a ‘wok garden’. Simply grow very small numbers of vegetable plants by successional sowings. Every evening, in the summer months just visit your garden and collect the small amounts of vegetables ready for eating; this might be just a few pea pods, half a handful of green beans, a pepper, spring onions, some spinach leaves and a few radishes, whatever is just right to eat. Back in the kitchen chop the vegetables and cook them, with rice or noodles in a wok. You simply don’t need large harvests to do this and you can carry on cropping all season. Salads can also be grown this way, everyday just take what is ready to crop and eat it. If you live alone, or as a couple, this method of gardening and eating will provide you with really fresh food for a good part of the year, in winter months you can grow many vegetables indoors in pots (see Chapter 7). It may not be self-sufficient, but it is a way of growing and eating your own food.

Stocking your Plot

You can buy seeds for your garden or you can buy young plants, but both of these are increasingly expensive. If you are in a community of growers then the sharing of plants can work wonderfully well, you simply sow a tray of cabbage, transplant as many as you need to your neighbour. Don’t ask for or expect, anything back in return, but after a while a community of ‘plant passers’ will be established. Saving your own seed it an excellent way of saving money, just leave a plant or two go to seed, collect and dry them for sowing next year. You can save seeds from most plants, but be warned, you will not get what you expect by saving the seeds of F1 plants, and even if your plants are not F1 you can expect the occasional surprise. Beans, peas, sweet peas, all members of the onion family and beetroot are especially easy to collect seeds from. I leave parsnips to seed themselves in the garden and look for self-sown plants the next year.

As an experienced grower, you will find that it gets easier to spot self-sown plants in your garden. To the inexperienced eye, these are weeds, but once you can recognize them simply transplant them to a more convenient spot, you will be surprised how effective the collection of these free plants can be.


Whatever the size of your garden you will need to make a compost heap. Ideally, your compost will be a wonderful and nutritious supplement to your soil, but in reality it will vary in composition and quality. This is not a terrible problem, whatever the quality of your compost as long as it is well decomposed and fibrous it will be of use to you in the garden. Uses weeds, animal manure, grass-clippings and biodegradable waste from your kitchen, try to layer the heap carefully and don’t include large items without chopping them first. In summer your heap will be useable quite quickly, but in cold weather it may take some months. If you are unhappy with the quality of your finished product, then layer it with fresh material in a new heap. You can add wood ashes, but not ashes from coal fires, if you add too much of one thing, then mixing the heap up will help material to decompose. You may need to cover your compost heap in very wet weather.


If you are vegan, or perhaps even a vegetarian you will decide from the onset not to keep livestock. However, many people keep some livestock on their land and incorporate full into their self-sufficient lifestyle. To be ethically acceptable the following conditions must apply,

  • Any livestock must be housed suitably and given full protection from bad weather.
  • You must ensure that your livestock is properly fed, watered and bedded at all times.
  • You must regularly clean out or otherwise look after your livestock to provide a healthy environment.
  • You must be prepared to use the services of vets if your livestock needs attention.

Long periods away from your home of long working hours that mean you do not get home until after dark in the winter are not compatible with keeping livestock.

Chickens and Goats

Chickens for egg production are the first choice of many when it comes to keeping animals. Choose your variety well and ensure that you have housing that provides enough room and fox protection. It is, in my experience impossible to keep chickens roaming freely over your vegetable and fruit crops; they will eat it or scratch up the roots, in wet weather they will turn any seedbed into a muddy swamp! Better to keep them either within a run with housing for roosting and egg laying, or keep them in a large barn which is open each end but fenced to prevent escape. A good laying hen will produce about three hundred eggs a year, so don’t keep more than you need. Cockerels are noisy and will mate with any chicken around so why not go for an all-female cross like Warrens, excellent layers and placid birds. Chickens are prone to bullying each other so be prepared to intervene on occasions, long term flocks will have a pecking order established, but if you are introducing new birds be prepared for difficulties.

Chicken food has, like human food, become much more expensive in recent years; cut your costs by feeding your chickens on weeds and unwanted crops from your garden. Chickens fed on ‘corn and greens’ produce much better eggs than those fed on commercial ‘layers pellets only’. If you do buy pellets please make sure that they do not contain antibiotics, which are an unnecessary addition. I grow as many pumpkins as I can in the summer to supplement chicken feed throughout the winter months and a plot full of overwintering Brassica is a good idea.

Goats are also favoured by the self-sufficient grower, but please take expert advice before you start. I was once told that if you keep goats, at some time they will escape, and when they do, they will wreck your entire garden in a very short time. The answer is to keep them in a paddock which few will have room to provide. Vet bills for goats can also prove expensive.

Both chickens and goats will provide an excellent amount of manure that will make your compost heap the envy of folks for miles around, an added bonus.

Beekeeping was once so common in Britain that almost every country-dweller had a row of skeps in their garden and honey was readily available. Today this is far from the case; declining meadow and hedgerow combined with non-selective insecticides; bee diseases and climate fluidity make beekeeping much more difficult. If you look at the cost of keeping bees and the time it will take to get the money back you will soon realize that beekeeping has moved out of the realm of self-sufficiency and into the realm of an expensive hobby. If you do decide to keep bees then strongly consider taking a course in beekeeping from your local bee association and get some honest expert advice on how to get started. We do keep bees on our land, but not for honey, the bees are maintained with as little interference as possible just for us to enjoy the sight of them and for the work they do in pollinating the crops. As an alternative to keeping bees yourself, why not make your land as ‘bee-friendly’ as possible and let the people ‘up the road’ who keep bees have all the expenses and the hard-work. Given plenty of flowers and places to nest, wild bees of all kinds will take up residence in your garden and pollination of your fruit and vegetable flowers will be assured’


Your use of the land puts you in a position of trusteeship; the land was there before you and the land will be there when you are gone. Take your trusteeship seriously and do what you can to live in harmony with the wildlife to which your land is a home. If you have space to let a corner of your garden be a wild place where animals can live and feed without harm, if you have a lawn, let some of it become a meadow where wildflowers can grow and bees and butterflies feed. If you can, try to grow a hazelnut tree, the nuts that you can’t eat will have wildlife queuing up to devour them. Your providing these facilities mean that you are more than just a gardener, you have considered the needs of other things and that is the right way. Some sacrifice is necessary, either of space or produce, but the world does not belong to us and the squirrels know little of the laws of theft, nor hedgehogs of trespass.

Most, but not all, children love the process of growing food. Try to encourage them as much as possible and get them enjoying work in the open air. You may decide to give your children a plot of their own to grow food on, but please only do this if they want the responsibility, a plot full of weeds with, you have to constantly moan at them to ‘work on their plot’ is not the outcome you want. In my experience children work best helping adults with the jobs that need doing.

(C) K and R Lovegrove

Celebrating your produce
Throughout the world ever since humans gave up nomadic hunting and took to being farmers, then the bringing home of the harvest has been a time of celebration and thanksgiving. Make sure that every autumn you and your family take the time to have a special meal (hopefully made up of your own produce) and give thanks. Whatever your religious tradition, this is important!
“The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there. “
~George Bernard Shaw

·         Plan to use whatever land you have to be productive.

·         Grow a mixture of vegetables, fruit and herbs.

·         Consider all the ways that you can use your garden with as little negative effect on wildlife as possible.

·         Add things to your garden that will provide food and shelter for helpful wildlife.

·         Where possible use organic and safe methods of protecting your crops and controlling weeds and pests.

·         Don’t grow more of any crop than you can use or preserve at harvest-time.

·         Grow ornamental plants as well as edible plants to make your garden a place of beauty and simple peace.

·         Do whatever you can to make your land a better place for pollinating insects to feed and live.

·         Consider building a polytunnel to extend your growing options.

·         Consider keeping some livestock.

·         Consider beekeeping.

·         Save seeds from your crops to sow next year.

·         Look out for self-sown seedlings for transplanting.

·         Plan your food growing to be as self-sufficient as possible.

·         Buy or rent enough land to fully feed you family and house your livestock.

You may like to read

Biggs, McVicar, Flowerdew,  The Complete Book of Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit Kyle Books 2013 edition.

This book gets used almost everyday at my house, the cover is falling off with use.

Charles Dowding,  Salad Leaves for All Seasons ~ Green Books 2008

With time and determination you really can have green salad leaves everyday of the year.

Gatter, McKee, How to Grow Food in your Polytunnel All Year Round ~ Green Books 2010
Full of sound and very practical advice.

Ken Thompson, The Book of Weeds~ Dorling Kindersley 2010

If you can’t beat them, then try eating them, using them as cut flowers or just learn to coexist!

Bob Flowedew, Organic Gardening Bible  Kyle 2012

Bob Flowedew can be irritating, in that he advises on doing things, without really any explanation why. That aside, this is the book that will change you from being ‘almost’ organic gardener to going all the way!

You will love this beautiful book that guides you into peaceful coexistence with wildlife on your vegetable plot. Your children will pries this book from your fingers to look at the illustrations.


The Natural Beekeeping Trust

Keeping bees to help protect the species and to  pollinate flowers,

(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...